Thinking, Making and Igniting Inspiration

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY / NNY MAGAZINES
Managing Director of Clarkson Ignite Erin Draper checks out notes students have written on the walls of the Studio classroom.

BY: Doug Buchanan
For many, the idea of college evokes images of studying in a lonely cubicle or sitting at a desk in a dorm room in front of a textbook. But at Clarkson University, an innovative new program brings students and professionals together in a way that promotes hands-on activity, creative thinking and real-world application of material learned in the classroom.

Welcome to Clarkson Ignite.


On any given day, room 238 in B.H. Snell Hall – otherwise known as the Studio – is abuzz with activity. Occupying a space that used to hold a computer lab, Ignite program participants can now use the Studio to experiment with their ideas, to invent new ones and to work together with others.

The core ideals that gave rise to the Ignite program have long been part of Clarkson’s mission and vision for its students: working together to create something of value.

 “We talk about producing graduates that are able to be leaders wherever they land, creating economic or societal value,” explained Erin Draper, Clarkson Ignite’s managing director. “We think the way to do that is to bring people together across departmental boundaries.”

The Studio – which will soon be enhanced by the Innovation Hub, part of a major renovation of the Andrew S. Schuler Educational Resources Center – is a creative space where students from multiple majors and disciplines can work together to brainstorm, discuss, experiment and devise solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

 “The Studio in our B.H. Snell Hall building is a beta site for us as we prepare for the Innovation Hub to open,” said Draper. “The walls are all whiteboard. The furniture is very flexible. Students designed and outfitted it for how they wanted it to be. It has minimal supplies, a large-format printer and a 3-D printer. The focus is on collaboration.”

And that collaboration is not just among students. Professionals from various fields have been making themselves available as mentors as well as guest lecturers for the program’s annual speaker series.

“Professionals in our own community and within the Clarkson network are critical to the program,” said Draper.

But what if a member of the Clarkson network – say, a graduate working in his or her field in California or Zurich – can’t make it to the Potsdam campus to work with students? No problem. One of the program’s most useful, and fun, assets is the telepresence robot, a mobile unit complete with a camera and monitor built to facilitate two-way communication across any distance.

 “You could be anywhere in the world and control the robot and walk yourself around campus,” said Draper.

As for the Innovation Hub, Draper explained that while such spaces are becoming more common at colleges and universities nationwide, what makes Clarkson’s different is its availability to all students, from freshmen right up through graduate students. The key is bringing together problem-solvers from across an array of disciplines. As projects are viewed from different angles, unique solutions can emerge that may not have been considered otherwise.

To foster this kind of cross-disciplinary concept, Clarkson Ignite sponsors an annual competition called the President’s Challenge.

 “President (Tony) Collins challenges students to use intelligent or autonomous technologies to positively impact how we live and learn,” explained Draper.

With $25,000 in prize money on the line, 29 teams – from 27 different majors – participated in last year’s challenge. Teams must include members from at least two of the university’s three schools. The inaugural challenge last year was a huge success, said Draper, who added that this year’s theme will be for teams to find ways to utilize “the internet of things” to improve their community, which includes the Clarkson campus, the north country region, and the greater global community.

Draper is also keen on finding ways to partner with businesses. As former director of the university’s entrepreneurship program at the Reh Center, Draper understands that while the Ignite program is primarily research-centered, ideas with commercial applications can often come out of the Studio or Innovation Hub. In those cases, projects would likely shift from the Ignite program to the Shipley Center for Innovation.

Help along the way has come from donors who have signed onto the vision for Clarkson Ignite. For example, the Emerson Foundation has supported the creation of the Innovation Hub, parts of which will be open and available to incoming and returning students this fall.

To give students a better look at the program, they can attend this fall’s Ignite Fest. 2017’s festival was a chance to showcase various departments and program offerings. During the daylong event, Ignite hosted innovation activities and showcased more than 35 campus resources.

As Clarkson Ignite grows bigger and brighter, scores of new ideas will surely come from a program whose core ideal is a simple, yet vital, one: Two heads are better than one.